Stairway to Court: What Would a Reasonable Person Do?

In Young v. Guide One Ins. Co., a woman slipped and fell while attending a funeral, failing to notice a semicircular step down from the sanctuary to the reception room. She sued the church and its insurer, and at trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants, finding that the step down did not have a defect that created an unreasonable risk of harm (pdf). 

At trial, the plaintiff and fact witnesses presented conflicting evidence regarding the lighting in the area of the fall, with the plaintiff and her relatives testifying that the lighting was dark or dim and the disinterested witnesses testifying that the area was well lit. The plaintiff also admitted that she did not look where she was stepping when she opened the door to the recreation room. The only expert, called by the plaintiff, testified that the church did not meet the requirements of the Life Safety Code, although he admitted that he did not know if the church was old enough to fall within the grace period. He further testified that he was unsure whether the code even applied to religious facilities.

On appeal, the First Circuit held that in order to establish liability based on ownership or custody of a thing, a plaintiff must show the following:

  1. the defendant was the owner or custodian of a thing which caused the damage;
  2. the thing had a ruin, vice or defect that created an unreasonable risk of harm;
  3. the ruin, vice or defect of the thing caused the damage;
  4. the defendant knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the ruin, vice or defect;
  5. the damage could have been prevented by the exercise of reasonable care; and
  6. the defendant failed to exercise such reasonable care.

The determinative issue in this case was whether the step had a defect which presented an unreasonable risk of harm. The court held that the degree to which a potential victim may observe a danger is a factor in determining whether the condition is unreasonably dangerous, and a landowner is not liable for an injury which results from an open and obvious condition. Based on this analysis, the First Circuit held that it could not say that the jury was “clearly wrong” in finding that the step down was not a defect that presented an unreasonable risk of harm. The court affirmed the trial court judgment in favor of the church and its insurer.

Take-Away:  The plaintiff carries the burden of proving the existence of an unreasonably dangerous condition when claiming Landowner liability. When a condition is open and obvious, a jury’s determination of no liability will rarely be reversed.